Back In Frisco: Can the Herd Add Magic Number Seven?
Updated: Jan 1, 2019
For the seventh time in eight years the amazing, record setting FCS Football Dynasty is taking up position in "Fargo South" to defend it's National Championship. This comes after dispatching it's greatest MVFC rival, the Jackrabbits of SDSU. This dispatching came in a rude and convincing fashion. I don't believe in gloating, but when the Bison ran for 439 yards, led by our QB running over people for 147 yards while the opposition QB was being knocked senseless, the use of "convincing", might be an understatement. In my lead up article to the semi-final game, I stated that SDSU's Achilles heal was its propensity to play mediocre defense (you can read about it here). I couldn't see how the Rabbits would hold us under 30 points. They didn't.
Who is Eastern Washington and looking at their 14 game season profile, how good are they? I am doing an even deeper analysis than for SDSU (hey, this one's for all the marbles). Consider it my Christmas present to Bison Nation.
Coming into the Championship Game, the Eagles are the third most winning FCS program in the 2010's decade with 90 victories. They trail Sam Houston State with 92 wins and NDSU's best ever 120 w's. We have never faced Eastern in the playoffs again after the controversial loss in the 2010 quarterfinals, even though they have been back to the playoffs in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016 (three of these losses were semi-final home losses). So when it comes to wins and playoff pedigree, the Eagles are a top three FCS program. What has kept them from punching the Frisco ticket again until this year and what makes this year's team different?
Up until this year, Eastern has played bad defense. Their seven-year total defense since their National Championship comes in at 438.8 YPG (yards per game). That would rank them 92nd in the FCS this year. Ranking at the top of the bottom 25% of all defenses doesn't win championships. They lost shoot outs to Sam Houston (45-42 in 2012), to Towson (35-31 in 2013), to Illinois State (59-46 in 2014) and to Youngstown State (40-38 in 2016). Over this same period Code Green averaged 273.7 YPG in total defense. That's why the ring total is 6-0 over the Eagles.
What about this year's team? Have they changed the mold and make-up of their defense? Not really. Eastern Washington has been and still is an offense first team. They overwhelm teams by outscoring them. Their new head coach, Aaron Best, has sought to make them a more balanced team by running the ball more, playing better defense and just being a more physically intimidating team. His DNA as a player and coach is from an offensive perspective. Best played for Eastern as an offensive line man and was elevated to the head coach after being their offensive line coach for years.
What have been the results of this toughening up project? They have increased how they run the ball significantly (rank 10th in FCS), while still being a top scoring (3rd) and total offensive (2nd) team in the FCS. On the defensive side of the ball they jumped from bad defense to mediocre defense.
Defensively they are the mirror image of the Jackrabbits. Both have given up 385 YPG in total defense. Subtracting the Bison's rushing from SDSU in the two games they clashed, both have given up 156 YPG in rushing and scoring was within a decimal point of both allowing 22 PPG (points per game). SDSU played a tougher schedule according to Sagarin and is the higher ranked team. This had many fans declaring after the Herd's semi-final win that it was the defacto National Championship. No, the National Championship will be settled Jan. 5th in Frisco.
Just as I did for the semis versus SDSU, lets look at some of the subsets of games they played and not just the overall stats against every team. Quite frankly, I could care less about how the Eagles destroyed Division II foe, Central Washington, in the first game of the season. Lets see how they fared against teams with good defenses, good offenses, highly rated Sagarin teams (approximately the top 25 FCS playoff programs), playoff games and finally, is there anything to glean from common opponents?
The Eagles only played three teams that held opposing offenses to under 340 YPG. They were Weber State, Nicholls and Maine. The later two in the playoffs. They lost to Weber State 14-6. In all fairness, this was the first game after Gabe Gubrud went down with a season ending injury. Eric Barriere, a red shirt sophomore, took the controls, but the Eagles offense had their butts kicked by a very good Weber defense. They held Eastern to 247 total yards, no touchdowns (two field goals), 62 yards rushing, 19 of 42 in passing for 185 yards with 4 sacks and 2 interceptions.
Several questions and comparisons come out of this loss. If the Eagles are such an alpha running team, wouldn't they have bucked up a notch to overcome a Weber team with a very bad offense? Weber had the worst total offense of any of the seeded playoff teams at 321 yards and scoring a paltry 27.8 PPG. Remember in 2015, Easton Stick replaced Carson as an untested red-shirt freshman. He guided the Herd to an 8-0 stretch, including three playoff wins, before Wentz upped his NFL draft status by beating Jacksonville State in the National Championship. By the way, who is our QB on Jan. 5th? A senior, well tested version of Mr. Stick. Who are you going to put your money on? Vegas is picking Easton.
The next good defense, Nicholls literally gave the game to Eastern. They owned the first half. They were up 14-3 and marched the field to get in range of a short field goal with under 30 seconds on the clock. Make it, and you are up by two scores. They let the Eagles block the kick, then the dumb got dumber. The Nicholls player pushed the farthest out Eastern player out of bounds, but forgot the most important thing, the football. One of the three trailing Eagles picks it up and returns it for a touchdown. Now its 14-10. That is a ten point swing. They squandered several long drives in the third quarter, but still only trailed 20-14 with 12 minutes remaining in the game. What I am getting at is this was a much closer game than the final score.
The last "good" defense they faced was Maine, whose offense was as bad as Weber's. The point I am trying to make is the toughest teams to play are the ones with balance. They play good defense and good offense. To me, Maine was the most overachieving team in the playoffs. They are the poster boys for one of my first blogs, “When Equal Stats Aren't Equal” (click here ). A young 32 year-old coach had this team reaching for the stars before leaving for greener pastures at Minnesota. The story line that they had this juggernaut defense was more myth than reality. Every playoff season there is a team that wins the majority of the close ones and parlays it into a playoff run. Think back to the 2016 UND team. They went 8-0 in the Big Sky after starting 1-2 in the non-conference slate. Their margin of victories were like 5 or 6 points for the year. Richmond punctured the bubble in UND's first playoff game at home. UND was an average team that won all the close ones and that mediocrity was exposed in the playoffs.
Maine, during the season, only ended up playing four good offensive teams. These were Yale (11th in FCS in total offense), Towson (18th), Jacksonville State (5th) and Eastern Washington (2nd). They averaged giving up 35 PPG to these four teams. In other words, this "great defense" couldn't slow down any of the good offenses they faced. They lost two of these games by three or more scores and won the other two in shoot outs. Code Green faced eight top offenses and held them to 12.5 PPG. So who was a tougher semi-final opponent, Maine or SDSU? Based on hard statistical data SDSU was way better (53 Sagarin rating versus 104 for Maine at game time). SDSU also played a tougher schedule. Finally, Maine lost to Central Michigan (FBS) 17-6. Central only won one game the whole year, Maine. These Michiganders were 128th out of 129 teams in the FBS for total offense. Sorry folks, this was an ugly loss!! Yet the FCS pundits bragged about Maine playing two FBS opponents. They beat Western Kentucky after trailing 21-0 in the first quarter (won 31-28). They should be congratulated for the come back, but they gave up 28 points to the 102nd ranked offense in the FBS. The average offensive ranking of the other ten teams they played averaged 95 (bottom 20% of offenses). They lost to William & Mary 27-20, they ranked 122nd out of 124 teams in the FCS for total offense. That's an even uglier loss. In short, Maine's "black hole" defense was way overrated.
Good defenses had a way bigger effect on Eastern than they did on the Bison. They slowed their offense down in total offense by 28.3% (579.5 YPG to 415.3), rushing yards by 39.9% (285.8 YPG to 171.7) and scoring by 31.4% (47.7 PPG to 32.7). The margin of victory dropped from 25.2 to 14.7 (41.7%). The Thundering Herd kept rolling against the five good defenses they played. Total offense decreased by only 12.6% (492.9 YPG to 430.8), rushing offense down by 27.2% (316.9 YPG to 230.6) and scoring reduced 12.6% (43.7 PPG to 38.2). The margin of victory went down from 32.3 to 25.8 (20.1%). Our margin of victory against good defenses is better than Eastern's against average and bad defenses.
Good defenses really don't slow the Bison down much. The Eagles aren't a good defense, they are an average defense. I expect the Rams with Stick at QB to get our normal production versus such defenses. On the other hand Code Green will be the best defense Eastern faces this year.
How did the keepers of the inferno do when facing good offenses? Did their improved, average defense (they don't have a nick name), slow these teams down? They faced seven offenses that averaged above 400 YPG against all other teams. Total offense reduced by 8.5% (from 456.6 YPG to 418), rushing fell by 7.6% (197 YPG to 182) and scoring dropped by 22% (34.1 PPG to 26.6). 418 YPG would rank 82nd in the FCS for total defense and 26.6 PPG would rank 50th in scoring defense. That would place them at the top of the bottom third of all defenses in total defense and in the middle of scoring defense.
This reduction is negligible compared to the Bison. Code Green slowed down good offenses by 30% in total offense (443.4 YPG to 310.4), rushing yards by 44.5% (from 206.4 YPG to 114.5) and scoring by 62.5% (from 33.3 PPG down to 12.5). Our defensive statistics against good offenses would rank 14th in total defense and third in scoring defense. We did this against teams that averaged 114.9 in Sagarin to the Eagle's opponents 128.6. This is the difference of facing a top ten FCS team versus a top 18 team.
Speaking of Sagarin ratings, how did the Eagles play against top 25 FCS teams versus how did the Bison do? Eastern played seven teams ranked 149 or under compared to the Herds 10. What do these stats reveal? Again, the Eagles average defense drops significantly when facing top 25 FCS teams. These teams averaged 424.3 YPG in total offense. This new and improved defense lowered that amount to 417.7 YPG (a whole 1.6% reduction?). Rushing was reduced by 10.9 YPG (wow, that's a big flexing of your run stop muscles, 6.5%) and scoring was reduced by 8.7 PPG ( a very respectable 25.4% reduction). They reduced the average margin of victory for these teams from 11 points to 10 points. They were 5-2 w/l versus these seven teams.
I am experiencing a deja vu here. This is where the comparison with SDSU comes back into play. Eastern, just like the Jackrabbits, gives up fewer points than their overall defensive statistics would indicate. Some of this is because of turnover ratios and sacks overall, but in examining the numbers against top FCS competition, Eastern doesn't dominate. In these seven games they have given up 12 sacks and 11 turnovers. They have sacked opponents 16 times and have 16 take-aways. That's only plus 4 in sacks and plus 5 in turnovers. It caught up to the Blue Bunnies in their semi-final loss at the Dome. I believe it will hamstring the Eagles in Frisco.
We have looked in depth at two of their playoff wins with Nicholls and Maine, so I won't belabor these any more, but I will make some overall comments by stating that the Eagles could have very easily lost two of their three games. No playoff game the Bison played was in jeopardy past the beginning of the third quarter. Cal-Davis scored a touchdown and two point conversion with 1:12 left in the game to take a 29-28 lead and then let Eastern march 75 yards to score. I guess that's what teams with defenses that allow 431.8 YPG to opponents let happen. Isn't it ironic that this is statistically in the area of what the Eagles seven year defensive stats were in losing four playoff shoot outs? They finally met a team that played bad defense like they used to and pulled one out 34-29 with 20 seconds left.
One final comment on Eastern's playoff victories. They averaged giving up 443 YPG in total offense. This is three more than the 440 YPG these teams averaged against all other opponents for the year. I watched these games twice to see what the Bison would be facing in Frisco. All three teams moved the ball freely against the Eagle's defense. The ten turnovers these teams gave up were the difference. There were a few good defensive plays that helped create the turnovers, but the majority came about by sloppy ball security by the running backs and poor decisions by the QB's. These are traits the Bison haven't shown this year.
How did the Herd fare in the three playoff games leading to Frisco? The best term to describe it is total dominance on both sides of the ball. Let's start with Code Green. The three offenses we faced averaged 418.1 YPG in total offense (top 25% of FCS teams), 218.8 YPG in rushing (top 20 out of 124 teams) and 35.9 PPG in scoring (that would rank 13th). We crashed these numbers down to 271.7 YPG in total offense, 147 YPG in rushing, a 124.7 YPG in passing and 10.3 in scoring. These stat lines would rank nationally 4th in total defense, 36th in rushing defense, 2nd in passing defense and 2nd in scoring defense.
Another way to look at it, we took these prolific playoff offenses and reduced them to stat lines that would read as follows: 117th in total offense, rushing offense 74th, passing offense 116th and scoring offense DEAD LAST! In short, Code Green takes very good offenses and turns them into shit. Not so much with the keepers of the inferno. The teams they played did the same as they did against everybody else.
The sole bright spot for the Eagles is their playoff offensive statistics. The Spokesman Review (the Eagles local newspaper) stated "NSDU has shut down everyone it’s faced (11.8 points allowed per game), but it’s yet to face an offense as dynamic as Eastern’s." Did they research our wins against the Jackrabbits? A team that has an offense that ran the ball for over 200 YPG and scored 42.5 PPG. This offense was led by a dual threat QB, Taryn Christion, the all time leading total offense and passing QB in the MVFC.
Sorry for the rant, but lazy journalism is a pet peeve of mine. Yes, the Eagles offense has performed well so far in the playoffs and it did run against Maine and Nicholls who had been tough against the run this season - but, as stated earlier, the most telling statistic in their playoff run is that they are plus 6 in turnovers (10 total to their 4).
Lastly, is there any hidden gems in the common opponents they faced? First, lets dispatch the Montana State comparison. The Eagles beat them 34-17 on the road the fifth game of the season. We blew out the Bobcats 52-10 in our first playoff game. Ours was a more convincing win, especially since we ran for over 400 yards.
My total befuddlement comes when comparing our win over Cal-Poly versus Eastern's win. On the surface, it would seem they had the better win. We prevailed 49-3 in the season opener and three weeks later Eastern slaughtered them 70-17. So what am I befuddled over?
Cal-Poly has one of the premier run option offenses in the country. They also have the top ranked pro-prospect FCS running back, Joey Protheroe (according to Mel Kiper, the leading NFL draft expert). Wouldn't it be a good question to ask how did Eastern's defense do against this running juggernaut compared to Code Green? Cal-Poly ranked 4th in the FCS in rushing at 330.8 YPG. Kennesaw State was second at 352.9 YPG. The inferno crew allowed the Mustangs 378 yards of rushing and Mr. Protheroe carried the ball 34 times for 176 yards.
How about our stout Mid-western defensive crew? We held Cal-Poly to 82 yards rushing and put the brakes on Protheroe to the tune of 14 carries for 57 yards. Lets unpack these stats even more. Against everyone else the Mustangs ran the ball for 355.7 YPG. Code Green literally kicked their tail. Mr. Protheroe only got 57 of his FCS leading 1810 rushing yards against the Bison. The other 1753 came against other defenses like Eastern's. Eastern gave up more rushing than Cal-Poly averaged and the 176 yards Protheroe got versus Eastern were what he averaged against all other teams excluding the Bison (175.3 YPG). So, come Frisco, who's defense are you going to bet on holding the other teams run average down, Code Green or the other guys? We used to do this yearly to Zack Zenner until he escaped to the NFL. I have heard of no other mention of these statistical facts by any other pundits, including those who cover the Bison.
Stats that matter for Frisco:
* Defensively the Eagles are very average except in scoring. 60th in total yards, 46th in run defense, 84th in pass defense and 20th in scoring. These overall stats suffer when they go up against good offenses, highly ranked FCS teams and during the playoffs. NDSU's defense on the other hand is exceptional. They rank 5th in total defense, 2nd in scoring, 13th in run and 11th in pass defense. These numbers stay solid even when playing good offenses, top ranked FCS teams and in the playoffs. We played 29% (18 versus 14) more good offenses and top ranked FCS teams than did Eastern. The opponents we faced were higher rated with Sagarin (MVFC is better than the Big Sky, when will UND go 8-0 in the Missouri?).
* Offensively Eastern is a very formidable team. They rank 2nd in total offense, 3rd in scoring, 10th in rushing and 17th in passing yardage. Good defenses did bring down these numbers significantly (down a third on average for total offense, scoring and rushing). Against top ranked FCS squads, the numbers went down, but not as big against good defenses. NDSU's offense is overlooked by pundits too often. We rank 16th in total offense, 6th in scoring and 7th in rushing. Our passing efforts don't show gobs of yards, but we rank 1st in passing efficiency. WE ALSO DON'T RUN UP SCORES!! Our offensive numbers dipped slightly against good defenses in scoring and total offense (12.6%). Rushing dropped about 50 yards per game, but came in at a still respectable 230.6 YPG and about double what these 5 stout defenses were giving up to all others (116.7 YPG). Against top ranked FCS squads our offense didn't blink. We put up essentially the same numbers for total offense, rushing and only dipped 3 points in scoring to 38.4 PPG. In the playoffs we have ramped up all offensive statistics. We played 50% more good defenses and top rated FCS programs (15 to 10).
* Miscellaneous Defensive Stats: Code Green is much better at stopping drives. We stop 3rd downs. Other teams only convert 28.6% of the time (55 of 192 for 9th rank in FCS) and 4th downs even more infrequently. Opposing offenses only converted 16.1% (5 of 31 for #1 in FCS). Linking into Red Zone Defense we were #1 in FCS. Teams only scored 50% of time (11 of 22) with only 7 of these being touchdowns. Eastern's opponents converted 38.3% of 3rd downs (87 of 227 for 69th in FCS). They allowed 40.7% conversion of 4th downs (11 of 27, 35th in FCS). In Red Zone Defense they allowed teams to score 73.2% of the time (30 of 41 for 17th in nation for percentage of scoring). Notice the frequency of letting teams into the Red Zone, 41 versus 22. almost double. They allowed 24 of these to be touchdowns, we allowed 7 TD's. If we get into the Red Zone, we should score and it most likely will be a touchdown.
* Miscellaneous Offensive Stats: NDSU is better at keeping drives going. The Eagles convert 43% of 3rd downs (82 of 188 for 17th in FCS). They are converting 4th downs at 39.1% (9 of 23 for 91st in FCS). Red Zone offense comes in at 85.1% (63 of 74 for 33rd in FCS). 46 of these Red Zone excursions are TD's (62.2%). Stick and Co. convert 3rd downs 51.2% of the time (87 of 170, #4 in FCS). On 4th downs we convert 85.7% of the time (6 of 7 #1 in nation). In Red Zone Offense we score 91.4% of the time (53 of 58 for number 5 in FCS). In these Red Zone excursions, 47 of those are TD's (81%). Maybe its because our offensive line averages about 20 lbs more per player that we can do this?
* Miscellaneous Special Team Stats: There's not much difference on Kickoffs and kickoff return numbers. To date, neither team has run a kickoff back for a touchdown and we let So. IL take the opening kickoff back on the last game of the season. They have a very good punter (2nd in country), we have a very good punter (9th in FCS). We are better at defending the punt (3.47 yards returned per punt, 8th in FCS). Eastern defends punts at 6.3 yards per return (78th in nation). We are also better at returning punts, 15.6 yards per punt return (9th in FCS) versus the Eagles averaging 8.7 yards per return (51st in FCS). Shepherd or Grimsley just might break one. Their punter has out kicked their coverage many times this year. They have the edge in field goals. They are a perfect 15 of 15, we are 8 of 13.
* Key Assorted Stats: We have given up significantly fewer turnovers 9 (4 fumbles and 5 INT's). Eastern has turned the ball over 21 times (9 fumbles and 12 INT's). We are tied for 5th in fewest turnovers while the Eagles are tied for 76th. We should win the turnover battle come Saturday. In turnover margin we are plus 18 (1.29/game and 4th in FCS). Eastern is plus 11 (.79/game and 12th in FCS). We have a big advantage in the spread between sacks given up and what Code Green has done to opposing QB's. We have given up only 11 (.79/game and 8th in FCS) while creating 43 (3.07/game and 13th in FCS) . A spread of 32. Eastern has given up 20 sacks (1.43/game and 29th in FCS) while creating 35 (2.5/game and 35th in nation). This is a spread of 15, less than half of what the Bison create. And finally we average over 32 minutes a game (17th Nationally) and the inferno crew averages just over 27 minutes (111th in FCS).
* Sagarin has the Bison a 13.14 point spread and list the Golden at 14.57. They list the Herd as a 75% probability of winning. Vegas has the Herd a 14 point favorite.
So let me bring this to a close before I write a book. Going into this season, many fans and pundits had high expectations for this Bison team that is so loaded with experience and seniors. Talk circled around, could this be the best of these Championship run teams (the 2013 unbeaten team being top dog before this)? That was the premise I started this year on because of the stats that supported it.
So many things could disrupt this from happening. Key injuries, supporting underclass players not progressing enough to fill in the depth chart, etc. As those things disappeared, the thing that surprised me the most was how the press was fixated on which was the one game we would lose and then the elevating of JMU as an equal to the Bison at the top of the FCS hierarchy.
The 2013 team had to do the miracle drive to beat Kansas State and they also had to drive for two 4th quarter touchdowns to beat UNI at home 24-23. We had our close ones this year as well. SDSU didn't go easy at 21-17 and Youngstown State was at the door starting the 4th quarter tied 7-7 before we pulled it out 17-7.
As I stated in my first game preview for Mo. State, my intent is not to predict the score, but to give the underlying basis as to why the Bison should win or if the tea leaves call for it, could lose. There wasn't a game the Herd played this year where they weren't the favorite. Yes, they are that good. Now comes the last challenge, Eastern Washington. Without blather or bravado, the Bison are clearly the superior team. I feel they will win and will do it convincingly. I don't think Code Green will degenerate into a unit that will let a much smaller offensive line with a young QB get them into a high scoring shoot out. I think Stick will play his best game to date as he increases his NFL stock. I don't think these 24 seniors want to go out with a thud, but with thumping someone big as they slam the door.